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Author Biography: Sharyn McCrumb is the author of many bestselling novels, including The Songcatcher, The Rosewood Casket, She Walks These Hills, and The Ballad of Frankie Silver, which was nominated for a SEBA award. She has received awards for Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature and Southern Writer of the Year. Her books have been named Notable Books of the Year by both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
The boy stood still in the moonlight watching the riders approach. The chill of the night air had shaken the last bit of sleep-stupor from him, and he shivered, feeling the wind on his legs and the sensation of his bare feet touching the rough boards of the porch, and knowing that he was not dreaming. He had stumbled outside to make his way to the privy, but now something-not a sound, more like a feeling-made him stop a few feet from the door, and for long minutes as he stood there he would forget the push in his bladder that had sent him out into the cold darkness of an October night.
Horses were not an everyday sight in the mountains nowadays, as they had been in his daddy's time. Now that the Great War had ended in Europe, the world had changed. People talked about aeroplanes and automobiles and store-bought clothes. Every year brought more Model A's into the county, and those folks that didn't run an automobile could take the train into Johnson City or Asheville if they needed to go. You sent money to the mail-order catalogue, and the postman would bring you the goods, all parceled up in brown paper, whatever you'd asked for. They called it "the wish book." But nobody ever wished for the old days, not in these mountains. They all wanted the future to get here double quick.
But tonight was an echo of the old days ... there were horsemen at the edge of the woods.
The boy wondered who these riders were, out on the ridge past midnight, far from a road and miles from the next farm. He could make out three of them just this side of the trees beyond the smokehouse, but in the faint light of the crescent moon their features were indistinguishable. They carried no lantern, and they rode in silence. It took the boy three heartbeats longer to register the fact that the horses made no sound either. He heard no rustle of grass, no snapping of twigs beneath their hoofs.
One of the riders detached himself from the group by the woods and trotted toward the porch where the boy stood. He was a tall, gaunt man in a long greatcoat and scuffed leather boots, and he had a calculating way of looking through narrowed eyes that froze the boy to the spot like a snake-charmed bird. The rider looked to be in his twenties, with dark hair and black whiskers outlining his chin, as if he were growing a beard by default and not by design. The boy stared at the face, a pale oval in the moonlight, and he forgot to move or cry out. The man smiled down at him as if he had trouble remembering how. "Evenin', boy," he said in a soft mountain drawl. "What's your name then?"
"Rat-they called me Rattler, mister." It took him two tries to get the sound to come out of his throat.
The rider grinned. "Rattler, huh? Mean as a snake, are you, boy?"
The boy lifted his chin. Even if he was shivering in his nightshirt, he was on his own porch and he would not cower before a stranger. "I don't reckon I'm mean," he said. "But I give salt for salt."
"Fair enough." The dark man looked amused. "I guess I do the same." He glanced back at the woods where his companions waited, motionless, shadows in moonlight. "And you'd be-what? About twelve?"
"About," said the boy. He would be eleven in January.
"Well, snake-boy, what do you say? You want to ride with us?"
The boy shrugged. "Got no horse."
"Reckon we could rustle you up one." The smile again, cold as a moonbeam.
The boy hesitated. "You never said who you are, mister."
"I figured you knew. You've got good eyes on you, boy. And you don't scare easy, do you? So, what do you say? About riding with us, I mean."
"I-" The boy took a step backward until he stood in the doorway, under the iron horseshoe his grandaddy had nailed up over the front door. "Mister, I reckon my momma would skin me alive if I was to go off at night without telling somebody. And if I was to ask, I reckon the answer'd be no, anyhow."
"Well, women are mostly like that," said the rider, smiling again. He looked over his shoulder again at the shadows beyond the smokehouse. "Not all of them are, though. But most. Good evening to you, boy." With that he turned his horse and trotted back to the edge of the woods.
The boy could hear the oak branches scraping against the tin roof of the house, and he heard the rustle of the wind in the bushes that flanked the porch, but even though he stood stock still and strained to listen, he did not hear the sound of hoofbeats in the dirt. A moment later, the mewing of his mother's cat startled him, and he turned to see where it was. The cat hissed at him and puffed up its fur until it looked like a dandelion. When he looked out again across the yard the riders were gone.
He told no one about this midnight encounter, and it was years before he realized who he had seen on that October night. He started keeping a mason jar beside his bed so he wouldn't have to go outside to the privy during the night.
You would have thought that losing the war one time would be enough for them. You certainly would have thought that, wouldn't you?
As much sorrow and ruin and hatred among neighbors as was brought to these here hills by that sorry war, you would have thought they'd all be glad they missed out on it by being born a hundred years or so after the fact. They ought to be shut of it by now, ready to let the past bury its dead, and get on with the business of making a less terrible future. But no.
They will not turn loose of that war.
Nearly every sunny weekend that God sends will find these hills swarming with summer soldiers and sunshine patriots ready to take up arms and take aim at some other tomfool lunatic on account of his uniform being a different color from theirs. They're shootin' blanks this time, of course. I reckon that's an improvement.
When the weather gets warm, there's usually a crowd of re-enactors up to something in my neck of the woods. They drive up in their Chevy pick-ups or their fancy SUVs, stash their cell phones under the driver's seat, and haul out their bedrolls and pitch their tents to make camp so that they can spend the weekend shooting their Springfield rifles at defenseless trees.
I go out there right often to pass the time with the fellows camping out, if I don't have anything better to do. I don't participate in the hostilities, you understand. I just go for the company. I've been living out in these woods for many long years now, and every now and again I get a craving to be sociable. I get right much company, you understand, but that's more work than visiting.
People around here know that I have the Sight, and that I know a thing or two about healing on account of my Cherokee blood, so they come to me right along for poultices and tonics, or advice-with young people it's love and with older folks it's money. I even get folks from as far away as Asheville and Knoxville these days. Earth-shoe people, I call 'em. They want to know if my potions are macrobiotic or holistic or whatever the new buzzword is at the time. I just smile. City people used to look down on the old ways, putting all their faith in the doctoring tribe at the medical center, but lately they've begun to wonder what we know that doctors don't, and they come. One of 'em told me that living in a shack with no indoor plumbing "added to my rustic charm." That fellow didn't need a laxative, but I gave him one anyhow.
Helping people in trouble is my calling, but by and large troubled folk are not good company, so every now and again I go sit a spell with regular folks just for the novelty of society. Most of the time I prefer the deer and the possums who are my neighbors, but a change is as good as a rest, they say, and I give it a try every now and again. When the re-enactors take to the woods come spring, I go and visit them of an evening.
I generally know when they are coming, and as much noise as those jokers make, it would be hard for me not to know when they had arrived.
We sit and chew the fat for a spell about the current events as of eighteen sixty-something, which they call "getting into character." I don't generally say much since I haven't studied up on the fine print of history like they have, but they're all too busy showing off to notice. I reckon an audience is just as important as an actor, anyhow.
When dinnertime rolls around, they put my name in the pot, and I accept the invitation to sit supper, because I am not one to turn down a free meal as long as it's offered as hospitality and not for charity. Sometimes I bring along a sack of mushrooms or some field greens and ramps so as not to feel too beholden to them. That always delights them more than the food they spent good money for. They claim my wild plants put them in the spirit of the old days, because it is just the sort of food that the real soldiers would have eaten. Their own grub isn't too bad, on account of they can afford to buy good cuts of meat to start with, which is more than I can say, but at least I don't spend my weekends pretending to be poor and dirty. And I am not fool enough to tell them that if they want the flavor of soldiers' rations there ought to be maggots in the meat. No, I'm just as happy with Grade-A fresh beef, thank you all the same. Well, the re-enactors like me. They say I am au-then-tic.
"Rattler, it might as well be 1862 for you," one of the pretend officers told me once. "You live out in the woods in a-uh-"
"Shack," I said. "I know it's a shack, boy. But it's paid for."
He winced at that. He's a lawyer. I reckon his house payments would make your nose bleed. "Well, a shack, then," he said. "You have no electricity or running water anyhow. It's no stretch at all for you to get into character as a citizen of the nineteenth century. You're practically there already."
I just smiled at him to let him know he hadn't hurt my feelings, but I did not tell him how right he was. And how sometimes for me that war is a lot closer than those play-actors think. They got a glimpse of it once, though. One time they did.
* * *
He was the most authentic-looking re-enactor those fools had ever seen. All of them agreed on that. He showed up around dusk on the first day of the encampment for the Battle of Zollicoffer.
In the real war Zollicoffer hadn't amounted to much. They fought it here in east Tennessee in 1862 and managed to get a Confederate general killed, but hardly anybody has ever heard of him. General Zollicoffer, as a matter of fact. See? I told you.
The battle-scholars call it "Mineral Springs" when they bother to mention it-hardly rates a sentence in a general account of the Civil War, they tell me, but since there hadn't been many battles fought in Appalachia, and since this one had been the first real Union victory of the war, the local re-enactors seized upon it as an excuse to stage a sham battle in east Tennessee. They didn't have many other options, because "the mountainous terrain was not conducive to large scale warfare," as one of 'em told me.
It was, however, conducive to ambushes and guerrilla warfare. Nobody had to tell me that. The bad feelings lingered on right up through my childhood, so I knew about that part, all right. In the Civil War the armies of both sides stayed out of these mountains as much as they could, leaving the latter-day re-enactors only a few skirmishes to choose from to display their skills in simulated warfare. Maybe a battle wasn't really representative of how the war played out in the mountain South, but it was what people expected to see and it's what re-enactors do. If you re-enacted what really happened in the Smokey Mountains during the Civil War, I expect they'd call you a terrorist.
Plenty of the folks around these parts perished in the war, but either they got conscripted and marched off to Virginia to do their dying, or else they stayed home on small farms and starved in private. Some of them died close to home in an ambush or a shoot-out, but those battles were so personal and parochial that it's hard to tell if the potentates on either side ever knew or cared what transpired. The local people knew, of course, about the war as an excuse for murder and the feuds that grew out of such goings-on. It took most of a hundred years for folks around here to forget it. Nobody would thank the re- enactors for reopening those old wounds. People want their wars and their history clean and neat, like it is in the movies. So they do little battles-not feuds and ambushes.
Every year as a way to celebrate-and simplify-local history, some of the local war-gamers refought the battle of Zollicoffer in a well-choreographed and widely publicized weekend event, preceded by an exhibition encampment popular with local school groups. The real battle took place in January 1862, but winter is hardly the time for pageantry. Few spectators and no tourists would be there to observe the ritual, and so, for everyone's convenience, they elected to reschedule the battle in a more temperate month. Later on in the summer, a couple of the more dedicated and affluent local re-enactors would make the long drive up I-81 through Virginia to join the uniformed hordes at Antietam and Gettysburg, and perhaps even appear as extras in a movie, but this little local set-to was a yearly tradition, the season-opener for the sunshine soldiers.
Several thousand troops had participated in the real battle-the Second Minnesota, the Fifteenth Mississippi, and a host of local Tennesseans defending home turf-but the twenty-first-century version of the engagement was carried out by fewer than one hundred men, roughly divided between Union and Confederate forces. If the sides were too unbalanced, some re-enactors had to change sides to even things up. Many a soldier kept an extra uniform in the trunk of his car just in case he had to change sides for the weekend. (Now that's close to an authentic representation of the war in these mountains.) The Union army had won the original battle, which was a good thing these days, since political correctness has replaced witch trials and communist hearings as the preferred way to torment our fellow countrymen.
The opposing forces pitched their tents about a mile from one other along a winding dirt road that alternated between fields and forest. I was visiting on the Confederate side that weekend, mainly because Jeff McCullough was a better cook than his Union counterpart at the other camp. Sometimes Jeff is a Yankee. He says he doesn't much care which army he's assigned to, because he had ancestors on both sides, same as I did.
"By re-enacting I'm not trying to get even or to change the outcome of that far-off war," he told me once. "I just want to understand it from the inside out. I think that by sweating in a wool jacket of butternut-gray and firing a muzzle-loader until the barrel burns my hand, I can somehow crawl inside the skin of a long-lost soldier so that his thoughts will somehow become mine."
"Well," I said, "you're a newspaper man by trade, so perhaps you have a longing to experience something instead of always being the observer."
He thought it over. "Could be," he said. "Or maybe it's just that I missed my war-missed any war-and so I'm left with some sort of genetic longing to experience battle to validate my manhood. Combat is our childbirth."
"This isn't the same as a real war, Jeff," I told him. "Not childbirth-just adoption."
He smiled. "I know that. The enemy is firing blanks at me, and my comrades are not my brothers until death releases us, but only until the end of the weekend, when we will all go home to our central air conditioning and cable television. My battles are scripted. I have seen Blaine Kerry's leg blown off a dozen times in mock battles, and I barely hear the spectators' screams any more when it happens. I know he lost that leg in a tractor accident as a teenager, and he detaches the prosthesis for dramatic effect in mid-battle. The sight no longer moves me to fear or horror or pity. And yet ... And yet ..." He shrugged his skinny shoulders. "You probably think it's silly of us to even try."
"Not silly," I said. Dangerous, maybe, I was thinking, but I didn't say so out loud.
At dusk on Saturday, the troops had settled in for the evening. The sightseers had left for the day, and the boys were relaxing after a blistering afternoon in which they had sweltered in wool uniforms and carried around fifty pounds of equipment in the hot sun. Now they could relax, although most of them elected to stay in character as nineteenth-century soldiers, because that was the whole point of the exercise, wasn't it? I played along with them, a small price to pay for a good dinner and a couple of home-brewed beers.
At the Confederate tent nearest the dirt road, McCullough had set a kettle of Irish stew on the campfire to simmer, and half a dozen of us were sitting around it. The rest were doing the little chores that soldiers had to do in the field: polishing brass belt buckles, cleaning weapons. If they had been real soldiers they might have been picking lice out of our hair as well, but since I was their guest for supper, I decided to hold my peace about these little inaccuracies of theirs. It's not like I wanted them to have lice, and I was afraid that if I brought up the subject some over-zealous fool might take me up on the suggestion.
McCullough had his reporter's notebook out, and he was fooling around with the lead of the feature story he was fixing to write about the event.
None of us ever remembered seeing the stranger approach the campfire, but then we hadn't been paying any particular attention to the road. No sentries stood guard for the evening, because the spectators had all gone home, and the war was not scheduled to begin again until mid-morning tomorrow.
"Evenin', boys," he said to us. His voice sounded gruff and shy-just right for an east Tennessean, and so was his accent.
Jeff McCullough glanced up at the new soldier a little annoyed, probably wondering if he had come to cadge some of our stew, but the sight of him faded the frown right off his face. This fellow could have walked straight out of a movie, he was so au-then-tic. Short and fish-belly pale, he looked to be in his twenties, as most of the real soldiers would have been, while our present-day re-enactors have infantry men older than the generals were in the real war. Brigadier General Jeb Stuart never reached thirty. Fact. Contemplating that home truth spoiled many a birthday of mine, but as time went on and I outlived Lee, Grant, and Lincoln to boot without too awful much to show for it, I stopped minding so much.
Whoever this runty young fellow was, he was good. His uniform was as dirty and ragged, its material and cut as real as any you'd see in a museum display. It probably was real, they were all thinking. Raving hell-bent collectors can get hold of vintage clothing, and sometimes they're reckless enough to wear it to the re-enactments. The wonder of it was that the uniform fit him. That was rare. Mostly you see hats and belt buckles that are real-but a uniform? This fellow couldn't have been taller than five feet five inches and he was so skinny that it hurt to look at him. His cheekbones stuck out of pale skin and his eyes were sunk in shadows.
"I felt like giving him my dinner, he was so gaunt," Jeff said later. "I had to admire anybody that perfectly kitted out. I was even thinking the fellow might rate a couple of paragraphs in my feature story."
"Great outfit!" one of the new recruits called out to the stranger.
He didn't react, which was absolutely right, because the comment had been an anachronism. (I picked up on that word after the first two dozen or so mistakes I made in conversation, but now I can talk old-fashioned with the best of them.) A real soldier should have been bewildered by such a remark, and this boy played his part to perfection. He looked at the stew pot for a couple of seconds and licked his lips, but then he kind of shook his head, and he said, "Boys, can you tell me where I might find Colonel Walthall's camp?"
McCullough nodded. "Fifteenth Mississippi." There were about twenty guys from Johnson City who opted to portray that regiment just for this event. It would make sense that he was with them. They have a fair number of students from the college in their outfit. This was probably one of them vegetarian joggers from East Tennessee State, they were thinking.
Everybody had stopped what they were doing and were staring at the authentic-looking soldier. Nobody went over to him, though, because they were all settled by the fire and dead tired to boot. They just muttered hellos and kept gawking.
Me, I didn't say word one to him.
"Yeah," McCullough was saying, "the Fifteenth. You're on the right track, buddy, but you've still got a ways to go. They're encamped along this road, around the bend, and then about another quarter of a mile. Over by the creek at the edge of the woods. You can't miss it."
McCullough stood up and pointed the way down the road, a pale ribbon in the twilight. In another moment he might have offered to show him the way, just for an excuse to talk to him, but the stranger touched his hand to his cap with a nod of thanks and trudged away alone. I wasn't sorry to see him go.
McCullough settled back on the log next to the stew pot, which cheered me up, because I don't like the thought of my dinner being burned on account of a newspaperman's curiosity.
"Damn, that guy was good," said Wade Jessup. "I can look as dirty as that, but damn if I can look that skinny."
I didn't say anything. Just let it go, I thought.
"McCullough, you ought to put that fella's picture in the newspaper," somebody else said.
Jeff nodded. "Maybe I will. I'll hunt him up tomorrow sometime. Now, does anybody want to taste this stew before I dish it up?"
Another couple of minutes went by while we argued about whether or not the potatoes were done enough, and then we saw another figure heading up the road in the opposite direction-toward the parking lot. Even in twilight it was easy to recognize Jim Roberts's paunch, and we knew he was on his way to his pick-up truck for more beer. There wouldn't be any catcalls about that, though. Everybody took it easy on old Jim, because we knew he came out here and played war to get away from the real battles at home. He kept his beer and his troubles to himself.
Old Jim gave us a wobbly salute and started to walk on by, when Bill Shull hailed him. "Roberts, get over here, you sorry excuse for a Yankee sergeant!"
Roberts ambled over, took a whiff of our dinner pot and shook his head. "We got macaroni and cheese over the way. It's not authentic, but it sticks to the ribs."
"Hey, Jim," Wade said, "speaking of authentic, when you came up the road there, did you notice whether that guy you passed made it back to the Fifteenth Mississippi?"
"Just now?" Roberts shook his head. "Didn't see anybody on the road," he said.
"It's not that dark."
"No. I could see fine. There just wasn't anybody there, that's all."
"You had to have passed this guy," McCullough said. "He was heading in the direction you just came from. And you had to have noticed him. Best-looking soldier you ever saw-clothes, build, everything. The real McCoy ..."
"The real Hatfield, you mean, Jeff. He was Confederate." That was a good one, and they all had a laugh about it.
Roberts shrugged, wondering if the Rebels were putting him on. "There was nobody on that road, boys. Now I'm going for my beer."
He trudged on up the road toward his truck, and everybody just sat there and watched him go. Nobody said a word for five minutes after that. I don't think anybody wanted to be the first to say what they were all thinking. Then they looked over at me, because word has got around that I have the Sight, not that anybody cares to mention it much on social occasions.
"Well?" said Jessup, peering at me in the twilight.
"Well, what?" I said, taking a mouthful of stew and chewing it slow as I could.
"Well, why didn't Jim Roberts see that soldier on the road, Rattler? You saw him, didn't you?"
I chewed as long as I could, but they kept on looking at me, so finally I said, "Yeah. I seen him all right. I didn't speak to him, though."
"'Cause I don't hold with talking to dead people," I said.
After that they got all quiet.
Jeff McCullough didn't put that incident in the article he wrote, because he figured he'd never live it down if he did. But I always wondered if that poor lost soldier ever found the Fifteenth Mississippi. The real one.
In all the stories our local re-enactors told around the campfire, they never said another word about that lost soldier on the road, and I wasn't about to bring it up, but I've always known that the war's not over. I never did tell them what else I see. About the evenings when I stand in the doorway of my cabin, looking out at the woods graying into mist, and out of the shadows in the distance I see them ride by.
They stopped for me one time when I was a young'un, but I was a-skeered to go. I wonder what I would say if they was to ask me now?
The big fellow in the greatcoat comes first with the rifle at his side, followed by one or two of his men-and then-last of all-her. She's so little her legs barely reach below her horse's belly, and the pistol on her hip looks too big for her to have lifted, but I know it wasn't. She wears a thick coat, high leather boots, and breeches just like a man, but there's no mistaking her-those eyes, the sharp cheekbones, and her little girl hands on the reins. Her dark hair has come loose under a man's hat. It streams out behind her as she rides, and her pale face glows in the moonlight. For nights on end I'll stand in the dark yard, just waiting, but they don't always come. I've never worked out the pattern of it. Sometimes they come, but mostly they don't. And they never take any notice of me watching. I tried hiding a time or two to see if they'd come or if they might stop, but that never seemed to make any difference.
I don't hold with talking to dead people, but still and all I would give anything to exchange words with her. To see her draw rein and turn around so that I could look into those eyes. I'd ask her where it is they're riding to, or maybe I'd just wish her well or ask if she's content with this endless ride or if she wants me to try to help her. I want to say, You lived through the war, hon. It's over. Don't you remember?
She never stops, though. She rides on by, looking straight ahead, as if I was the ghost instead of her. And when I try to hail her, the words freeze in my throat so that I can only stand there in the darkness and watch until they disappear into the woods.
I never said anything about the night riders to my re-enactor friends at the encampment. It isn't that I was afeered they wouldn't believe me. I was more a-scairt that they would. Bad enough that the war is not over for them that fought it without having these toy soldiers out there a-trying to hunt up the real ones.
--from Ghost Riders by Sharyn McCrumb, copyright ©' 2003 Sharyn McCrumb, published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Posted February 10, 2013
Great storytelling, interesting characters and plot. As a transplant to NC, I was especially intrigued by the real life characters whose names are all over the state (Vance, Merrimon, etc). Only downside was the poor editing of the e-book version - strange additional characters - very distracting.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 11, 2005
Posted February 9, 2004
I have enjoyed other of McCrumb's books, but this one was too disjoined. I felt that Nora Bonesteel and Spencer Arrowood were present only to please those who had read earlier books. She never brought all the characters together the way she did in other books.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 27, 2003
Posted September 26, 2003
Ms. McCrumb's novels takes you on a incredible journey with each book she writes. Even though I grew up in Pennsylvania with its own mountains and hills, her books take you to a place that we seldom hear about. She has no equal and truly one of the finest writers of our time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 27, 2003
Sharyn McCrumb is one of the best writers I have ever read. If you are from the South, then this book will hit home. Even if you aren't, read the book. The Civil War wasn't just about slavery. It had much more to it than that.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
In 1861 when it comes to joining a side in the war, people living in the Southern Appalachia believe neither side is right because someone will detest you for signing up with the wrong team. When her husband Keith signs on with the Confederacy due to the pay, Malinda Blalock cuts her hair and joins too as his younger brother Sam. They try to receive a discharge, but soon become avenging outlaws even while a mountain peer Zebulon Vance somehow becomes governor of North Carolina.<P> At the same time except in the year is 2003, Civil War reenactment actors in the Appalachians reenacts a violent incident from 1862 when suddenly ghosts of Confederate soldiers appear. Local residents Rattler and Nora Bonesteel try to use their special gifts to calm the angry ghosts and assist them in moving on to the next plane.<P> Readers who enjoy a complete package with no finality need to look elsewhere. However, those fans that appreciate a deep comparative look at generations over a century apart with the ending of each ¿tale¿ left to the imagination will value the powerful GHOST RIDERS. As expected Sharyn McCrumb provides her audience with a strong story line filled with wonderful protagonists as she displays why she is so good at bringing together contemporary and historical perspectives as few writers can do.<P> Harriet Klausner
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 21, 2009
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